One of the curious things about the proponents of so called evolutionary ethics is that although they wave the banner of science, their ethics are actually arbitrary. Take for example Robert Wright, who proposes utilitarianism. Since you can’t derive utilitarianism just from belief in natural selection, how does he get there? He argues like this:
1. Since Darwinism destroys traditional belief, once it gets loose in the world it becomes harder and harder to find principles on which everyone will agree.
2. In such a world, which “for all we know is godless,” minimalism rules; fewer principles are better than more.
3. Under minimalist rules of play, utilitarianism wins, because it has only one principle: Pleasure good, pain bad.
4. Although this does not prove the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain, we do in fact regard pleasure as good and pain as bad. “Who could disagree with that?” Wright asks.
The argument is full of holes. One of them is that even if we do have to play by minimalist rules, the kind of minimalism that is likely to strike people as plausible depends on what kind of people they are. In cynical times, when they are well-fed, the One Plausible Principle may seem to be “Pleasure is good.” But in violent times, when they are afraid, the One Plausible Principle may seem to be “Death is bad.” That was the principle propounded by Thomas Hobbes in 1641. Need it be pointed out that the premises “Pleasure is good” and “Death is bad” entail very different courses of action?
Another problem is that Wright confuses happiness with pleasure. People might agree with him that happiness is good, yet not agree with him that happiness and pleasure are the same thing. In fact, for many reasons, most of the Western tradition has denied it. For instance, happiness abides. Pleasure doesn’t.
Or they may agree with him that pleasure is good, yet deny that it should be pursued as a goal. For another of those annoying insights of the Western tradition is that single-minded pursuit of pleasure dries up the springs of pleasure. People most readily experience pleasure as a result of pursuing goods other than pleasure.
Or they may agree with him that pleasure should be pursued as a goal, yet not agree with him that aggregate pleasure should be pursued as a goal, as utilitarianism requires. If torturing one innocent soul would make everyone else much happier, then pursuit of the greatest possible aggregate pleasure would require torturing him. In fact it would require torturing him no matter why that made everyone else so much happier -- even if there were no other reason than that they were all sadists. Apparently Wright has not thought things through this far.
You would think that before throwing out the Western ethical tradition, evolutionary ethicists would try to learn something about it. Apparently not.